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Psychology: Search Tips

Selecting Keywords

Before you begin searching, brainstorm a list of keywords that describe your topic. It may be necessary to try multiple approaches to your search in order to generate the best results.

  • Consider synonyms and closely related concepts
    • Couples counseling vs. marital therapy
    • Children vs. youth vs. adolescents
    • Pre-school vs. pre-kindergarden vs. early childhood
  • Consider spelling and word variations:
    • Labor vs. labour
    • Counseling vs. counselling
  • Consider using broader or narrower search terms:
    • Anxiety vs. social anxiety
    • Standardized tests vs. college entrance examinations

Avoid searching for long phrases or sentences. Extract key concepts instead:

  • Avoid: How to design and implement programs for treating addictions
  • Use: addiction AND treatment

If you are conducting historical research, consider how vocabulary changes over time.

Combining Keywords

How the databases and library catalog interpret your keywords depends on how you combine them.

  • AND
    • Yields only results that contain both keywords
    • Used to find resources that discuss both subjects
  • OR
    • Yields all results that contain either keyword
    • Used to include multiple topics or synonyms
  • NOT
    • Yields all results that contain the first keyword, except those that also contain the second
    • Used to exclude aspects of a topic that are not relevant

Using Subject Headings

Most topics can be expressed in multiple different ways. Many library catalogs and databases use subject headings to unify these variations in vocabulary. Whatever language the individual author used, the work will be indexed in a library database using the subject heading for that topic. You can use subject headings to get ideas for how to search for your topic or to make sure that you're finding everything relevant, even if the authors used different language for the topic than you did.

In most databases, subject headings are listed and defined under links called "headings" or "thesaurus." When you view the record for a book or article, you can see the subject headings assigned to it, then follow those subject headings to find other resources on similar topics.

What is the difference between a popular and a scholarly source?

If you are not familiar with scholarly publications, it can be difficult to tell the difference between scholarly and popular periodicals. There are no definitive rules for distinguishing between the two, but here are some guidelines:

Scholarly (e.g., academic journals):

  • Are written by professionals within an academic field or discipline.
  • Contain research projects, methodology, and theory.
  • Have few, if any, advertisements.
  • Use college-level or specialized vocabulary of the discipline.
  • Include articles with extensive bibliographies, footnotes, or other documentation.
  • Contain graphics that are often black & white and consist of tables, charts, and diagrams.
  • Are peer-reviewed or refereed.

Popular (e.g., magazines, newspapers):

  • Are written by journalists.
  • Contain general news articles written to inform, update, or introduce a new issue.
  • Have many full-color, full-page advertisements.
  • Use a general, non-technical vocabulary.
  • Include articles with little or no documentation.
  • Contain graphics that are often full-color pictures and illustrations.

Databases that contain both scholarly and popular sources usually allow you to restrict your search to scholarly sources only. Look for an option to display only scholarly or peer-reviewed sources.

You can also use the database Ulrichsweb to check if a source is peer-reviewed or not. Ulrichsweb does not contain articles itself. Rather, it provides information about periodicals to help you understand your sources.

Trade Journals

Trade journals are specialized periodicals for practitioners in a certain field or profession. They usually include industry news, recent trends, best practices, opinion pieces, and advocacy for members of the profession. They can be highly technical, as they are intended for an audience who is already familiar with the field and its issues. Unlike scholarly journals, they are not necessarily focused on original research, nor are they peer-reviewed.

Types of Journal Articles

  • Empirical Studies: Original research, including secondary analyses that test hypotheses by presenting novel analyses of data not considered or addressed previously.
  • Literature Reviews: Critical evaluations of material that has already been published. Authors of literature reviews organize, integrate and evaluate previously published material and consider the progress of research in clarifying a problem.
  • Theoretical Articles: Articles in which authors draw on existing research to advance theory, tracing the development of theory to expand and refine theoretical constructs.
  • Methodological Articles: Present new approaches and methods or modifications of existing methods of research to the academic community.
  • Case Studies: Reports of case materials obtained by working with an individual, group, community or organization.
  • Other Types of Articles - brief reports, commentary, replies on previously published articles, book reviews, obituaries, letter to the editor, etc.


Source: Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th edition, chapter 1